Startling fact: lawn mowers did not always exist. Cows, sheep, and goats exist. They ate grass, and we ate them. A perfectly ecological relationship.
So what happened? Why do millions of Americans, weekly, straddle or push a mower, decapitating grass so it can never ever reseed itself — and then fertilize it so we can mow it… again?
In 1899, Thorstein Veblen (an American philosopher who actually taught at the University of Missouri) wrote in his famous “Theory of the Leisure Class” that laws, in his mind, were signs of “conspicuous consumption.”
To have grass, uselessly growing without the benefit of farm animals, telling the world (at least your neighbors) that you were wealthy. The more grass … the more wealth. Hence, the lawn mower.
Not only were farm animals restricted from luscious acres of grassland, birds, bees, insects, butterflies — that once feasted on prairie meadows filled with biodiverse flowering pollinating plants — now faced an inedible green Sahara.
Fast forward to today. More specifically, to late summer. Most of us by now are pretty sick of mowing. It’s a hot, sweaty misery. A small but growing contingent of Americans are admitting, enough!
Witness Robert and Wendy Hendrickson, prior garden center and landscape design experts. Robert looks back on his earlier decades as a homeowner.
“When my daughter was 5-6 years old, and I had only one day off from work, I would wave to her while I was on my lawn mower. That was our connection for the day. I concluded then and there, ‘I HATE mowing.’”
But in those days, we didn’t know much about nature. We just mowed over it. Now we know strange and fascinating facts.
Monarch butterflies, those beautiful orange “flutter-bys,” will only eat one plant — milkweed. Evolution paired insects with plants; they grew over eons to depend upon one another.
For example, a Carolina chickadee needs 9,000 caterpillars to feed a clutch of six chicks. Native oaks host 557 caterpillar species while non-native gingkoes support only three.
But Americans, beginning notably with Thomas Jefferson, wanted exotic, non-native, status-satisfying plants from foreign countries. Peonies. Iris. Bush Honeysuckle. Kudzu.
The bugs and birds looked at this spreading wave of imported vegetation embedded in acres of surrounding green grass — and not recognizing it — preferred to die by starvation. Sure enough, these population losses are starkly recorded today.
But Douglas Tallamy, noted author and scientist, sees a botanical revolution — terrific win-win solution for weary week-end mowers — right in our own back yards.
“If each landowner made it a goal to convert half of his or her lawn to productive native plants, even moderate success could restore 20 million acres … bigger than the combined areas of the Everglades, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Canyonlands, Mt. Rainier, North Cascades, Badlands, Olympic, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Denali, and the Great Smoky Mountains national parks.”
No mowing. More birds and butterflies. More “pollinators” (those ‘pro-life’ insects that transport pollen from the womb of one plant elsewhere, creating new plant life).
Several people in Hannibal are taking the challenge, including Robert and Wendy.
One day Robert called his old horticultural mentor Henry Eilers and told him, “Wendy and I want to turn the whole front yard into prairie.”
In 2018, he sprayed the selected three-quarter acre site. He planted it in the winter of 2019 with a wildflower seed mix custom concocted by Heartland Seed in Eolia. In 2020, it bloomed — bright yellow — filled with coreopsis which provided needed shade for the ensuing flowers to be nurtured. The next year, the predominant bloom seemed to be white penstemon.
Today the full range of colors fills the “recovered prairie.” Robert extolls, “The soil here is just amazing. It’s like potting soil.”
Wendy walks on paths cut through the prairie slowly. “I am not in a rush. I pick flowers but am careful not to invade bug space. Why hurry? There’s so much to take in.”
Because these native plants are, well, native, they are genetically designed to handle Missouri weather. They are carefree. The deep roots handle drought while providing much needed carbon storage for our overheated planet.
“Kids love to run through the paths when they come to visit,” Wendy adds. “It’s such a fun way to introduce young children to native plants.”
The Hendricksons love of prairie did not stop in their front yard. Farmland adjacent to them came up for multi-home development. Wendy found out over a mailbox conversation with a new land owner, who explained a road, water, electricity would soon be coming through.
But the Hendricksons and their adjoining neighbors, Carla and Jerry Motley, saved it — all 18 acres — and today it is in its “yellow” stage. Bright coreopsis fills the land. Redwing blackbirds soar overhead; quail run through it; deer nestle in it.
And mowing is slowly becoming extinct.